Innovations in Education

Scientific crime-solvers at Rohan Woods School, from left: Det. Dave Giocopelli of the Warson Woods Police Department, Alex Lennartz, Connor Walsh, Lara Yeast, Courtney Beat, Sydney Thomas, Hunter Leake and Lea Bender.

There’s more than one way to teach academic and social skills. Many local schools offer unique programs and learning opportunities to excite young minds. Teachers at Westchester Elementary School and Rohan Woods School told us how they’ve made learning fun and memorable. 

    When third-graders at Westchester Elementary run away and join the circus, they don’t have far to go. The circus is in the gym, and they are the stars. “For the past 15 years, our third-graders have put on their own circus,” says Marla Drewel-Lynch, a physical education and health teacher at Westchester, part of the Kirkwood School District. “Some see it as an interdisciplinary activity among the art, music and PE departments; to most of us, it’s the greatest show on earth.”

    The ‘Third-Grade Circus’ takes place in February, when winter is at its bleakest and everyone needs a mood boost. Working as a team, students decorate the gym with circus-themed artwork, make most of the costumes, and design the programs and invitations. “They call the shots and run the show,” says Drewel-Lynch. “It really develops their decision-making and communication skills.”

    The event includes multimedia art presentations, supervised by art teacher Andrea Laux, and production numbers overseen by music teacher Elizabeth Phillips Coan. “‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ always brings the house down,” notes Drewel-Lynch, who choreographs acrobatics routines, balancing acts, dancing and mime with fellow PE teachers Laura Young, Darlene McCarthy and Kathryn Hoberg  “Every single student gets a chance to shine, including the special needs kids,” she says. “The shyer kids might choose to dress up as clowns or circus animals; the more outgoing ones do tumbling or stilt-walking. Not one child goes unnoticed. It does wonders for their self-esteem.”

    What began as an academic exercise 15 years ago has turned into one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the school year, and a source of nostalgia for graduates. “I run into so many former students, all grown up now, who tell me it’s still their favorite memory of their elementary school days,” says Drewel-Lynch.

    Meanwhile, there’s been a murder in the hallway at Rohan Woods School! The butler didn’t do it, the kindergarten teacher did. Once a year, science specialist Jennifer Fruend and her sixth-grade science class solve a murder mystery. Fruend, inspired by the TV show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, stages a murder somewhere on the school grounds. It’s up to her students to crack the case. “We take it very seriously and even call each other by our last names, like they do on the show,” says Fruend, who refers to her students, whom she’s known since they were first-graders, as “my fabulous young scientists.”

        In their last episode, a ‘corpse’ was found in a school hallway. With a little backup from Det. Dave Giocopelli of the Warson Woods Police Department, the students lifted fingerprints and tested DNA from a coffee mug, collected hair samples and examined them under microscopes, and wrote detailed evidence reports. “Then, using ink chromatography, one of their chemistry skills, they analyzed a note found at the scene of the crime, traced the ink to a set of markers used by the kindergarten teacher, and tracked the culprit down,” Fruend says

    It isn’t all fun and games. “The kids have to be careful; if they mislabel evidence, it can ruin everything,” she notes. “But they love it, they’d like to do it all year long. It’s a great way to apply everything they’ve learned in class.” She adds that, along with developing their basic lab skills, they also learn teamwork, communication techniques and organization. But most of all, they learn patience. “It usually takes about a month to follow the clues, investigate the evidence and solve the case,” she says. “That’s kind of a shock to kids who are used to seeing crimes solved in an hour on TV.”